introducing readers to writers since 1995

July 01, 2005

Author2Author: Bruce Bauman & Joy Nicholson, pt. 3

by Ron Hogan

We have a lot of ground to cover before the holiday weekend begins and I lose your attention (and mine) for 72 hours, so this Author2Author post is a bit more extensive than usual!

Bruce Bauman: The Road to Esmeralda is a very personal book with a strong political backdrop. It's a much more mature work than your first novel in the complexity of the relationships and how they shift, and the humor is harsher and more droll. Which book came easier. Or should I say with less difficulty?

esmeralda.gifJoy Nicholson: The Tribes of Palos Verdes came with physical anguish--writing it made me literally sick with an auto-immune disorder. I felt nothing, really when writing it, but my body started attacking itself. Esmeralda came with emotional anguish. The scales had fallen from my eyes. In living around the world, a stranger, I could see my personal problems were really a microcosm of world problems--everything that was happening in me was happening out in the world, too, and much worse besides.

Bruce: For such a young writer, and a high-school dropout who doesn't consider herself well-read (I think you're wrong), Tribes is so fucking natural, the voice pitch-perfect. How much did you write before you began that book? How much did you rewrite?

Joy: I didn't drop out of high school as a rebellious stance. It was simply overwhelming and impossible to finish the courses I was failing, all the turmoil at home, the pressure in an upper class city like Palos Verdes to be special and noteworthy, the lies my parents were living, the false faces all around. Some of my first writings were letters to friends, my brother, and celebrities that I had fallen in love with. (I remember writing to President Nixon at my father's behest, telling him I was very sorry everyone was lying about him, and telling him people at my grade school lied about me too, and that it was okay--he would be okay. I got an amazing silver-embossed card back in the mail and kept it for many, many years.)

I rewrite a lot--obsessively. In fact, even when writing letters as a young person I would distill and distill until exactly what I meant to say appeared on the page.

More questions after the jump!

nicholson.jpgJoy: We both write about potentially explosive, easily misunderstood subjects--God and politics--so what do you do when reviewers/readers get the book wrong? For instance, a curious reviewer in Texas seemed to find Esmeralda not only 'stupid and right -wing' but 'disturbingly xenophobic'--though the book is strongly against USA foreign policies and stridently anti-nationalistic. (All nations are silly and dangerous when they wave flags. Sorry--even the French!) Do critical misfires hurt you as an author, and if so, is there an
answer? Sometimes critics seem not to read the books they review, or to half-read them while watching video games, or porn channels on the TV...i.e., not paying attention or wanting to vent their personal rage.

baumanb.jpgBruce: This is a very delicate question on lots of levels. I know I'm very lucky to have a book out, to have been reviewed at all. And I don't want to sound ungrateful by grousing about lousy reviews. Still, it is an important subject.

I wrote art reviews for about five years, and I had my guidelines. The first comes from the late Leslie Fiedler who said criticism should be judged the same way you judge a novel or poetry. The next principles were never to be mean spirited or give an emerging artist a bad review. So, although I write a column on art for a small art mag a couple times a year, I prefer not to write reviews, because in order to be a good reviewer I do think you have to write some negative reviews--they should be measured, well reasoned and sensitive--but I just don't want to do even that.

A friend warned me before my book came out that there would come a reviewer who will not only hate the book but wish I'd never been born. Unfortunately, she turned out to be right. We've both gotten one scathing, stupid review. And it hurts. Man, it hurts. Rips the soul. The thing is, in both cases the reviewer so missed the point of the book--I mean your guy didn't get the satire, for fucks sake and then totally misread the entire climax and denouement, so you wonder what book he was reading--that you can't take it seriously. In the end, it's a wound and it'll heal. And your book will be read long after this guy is forgotten.

I always remember this, two of the greatest books in American literature are The Great Gatsby and Moby Dick, and both were critical and commercial failures in their time. So, who the hell am I to complain? Because, in the end, all that matters is that you write the best damn book you can. Everything else is beyond your control.

Joy: Let me ask you one more question in that vein. I think people are so afraid of the Holocaust they make people black and white--all good vs all evil--and one of the characters in And the Word Was, Levi, undercuts that simplistic view: "People like you don't want to believe that I wasn't a sweet-souled mensch before Auschwitz, or a nice boychik after." There has been some backlash, I think, though it's a murmured backlash, about the absolute victimhood of some holocaust lit. That is, people don't like a victim or a martyr after a while, and, in fact, grow to resent their martyrs. It's such a delicate subject most won't touch it with a ten foot pole because Holocaust victims WERE victims, and yet, the public tires of victims... But Levi Furstenblum is not a victim; he is a rasping soul, good and bad, a real man, not a cut-out like the characters in say, a Leon Uris novel.

Bruce: First, I think you're right about the saturation of and a backlash against Holocaust literature/movies/memoirs. There are many reasons for this. Most of them are mediocre and actually downplay the monstrosity of what the Holocaust was or use the pity card or the triumph card. I knew I wanted to do something different, so I'm pleased you think I succeeded. Adorno's famous line about there can be no poetry after Auschwitz always stirred me. My feeling is there has always been mass evil, so there has to be poetry. Just without blather and bullshit.

A number of the Holocaust survivors I met were not nice people. They were angry and bitter, and that was fine with me: Why the hell not? But I didn't see them in the literature. And Elie Weisel—well, this will get me in trouble, but when I would see him on TV sighing, I'd get a stomach ache. I wanted him to be tougher, angrier, look less damn beaten down. He was a tough guy, but didn't show it.

The inspiration for Levi came from a Holocaust survivor who I only remember as Broucha. I met her on a kibbutz I visited for a couple of days twenty years ago, and we spoke one afternoon for a few hours. She was on a cot on her back the entire time we talked because of the injuries she suffered as a girl in the camps. She told me "everyone who survived the Holocaust has something dirty about them." She was one tough and bitter person; unconsciously, she stuck with me and that line inspired the Levi character. At first I didn't even realize it, and then Levi took me on his own journey. It is a mystery of creativity that I don't want to understand.

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